April 14, 2024

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve sat at the podium at Mohegan Sun Arena on Sunday alongside stars Napheesa Collier and Kayla McBride. Her team had just defeated the Connecticut Sun to force a winner-take-all Game 3 in the first round of the 2023 WNBA playoffs, and she couldn’t help but reflect on how far her group had come.

As McBride finished an answer describing the emotions of the moment, Reeve interjected. “From 0-6 to 40 minutes from the semifinals,” she said. “What more could you ask for?”

The Lynx haven’t been underdogs very often since Reeve took over in 2010, winning four championships across the following seven years to become one of the most successful franchises in league history. Minnesota, which took home its last title in 2017, officially embarked on a new era after last season: With Collier sidelined all but four games of 2022 due to pregnancy/maternity leave, the Lynx missed the playoffs for the first time since Reeve’s initial season in Minneapolis, and Sylvia Fowles, the sole remaining player from Minnesota’s dynasty, retired.

“When you miss a season of being in the playoffs, everybody wants to get back,” Reeve said earlier this month when the Lynx clinched a playoff berth. “It means something to us, to be playing in the postseason. It’s a lot of hard work that went into that, to get back there and do what this franchise is accustomed to doing.”

Minnesota’s 2023 season — which started with six consecutive losses — could be remembered for more than the Lynx surpassing expectations to make the playoffs. Minnesota is within reach of returning to the semifinals for the first time since 2020 and could win its first postseason series since its 2017 title run.

The Lynx will have home-court advantage when they host the Sun at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday (ESPN) at Target Center.

Many analysts predicted an underwhelming season from the Lynx after an uneventful free agency in which they met with but failed to sign top targets Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot. Even in the preseason, Reeve stressed this summer would largely be about development and building toward the franchise’s long-term future — not “winning now.” Should they have languished, there were several transformational college players, like Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and Minnesota native Paige Bueckers, set to enter the league in the next couple of years who could undoubtedly boost the organization.

The team’s 0-6 start was their worst since 2007. Eleven of Minnesota’s 21 regular-season losses were by 11 or fewer points, with six of those games coming in the first three weeks of the season.

They’ve also been riddled with injuries, with Jessica Shepard, Tiffany Mitchell, Diamond Miller, Rachel Banham and Lindsay Allen all missing at least seven games, and Natalie Achonwa out the entire season due to maternity leave. Allen’s absence — which has extended into the postseason — is particularly notable as she’s the only true point guard on the roster, a position where they’ve lacked stability and consistency since the 2018 retirement of Hall of Famer Lindsay Whalen.



Kayla McBride gets it done on both sides of the ball

Kayla McBride steals the rock and buries the 3-pointer to give the Lynx a 61-48 lead.

After their winless start, the Lynx went 19-15 the rest of the way. And at the end of July, they showed they could compete with the league’s best by beating the New York Liberty and Sun in consecutive road games — all while Collier sat out with an ankle injury.

“I think the mentality has been the same, honestly. I don’t think there was something dramatic that happened,” Reeve said of Minnesota’s growth. “Just playing together and really as a staff recognizing a little better [how to pivot]. You just learn each game that you play together and the players definitely learned about each other, what the coaches were wanting.

“We knew we weren’t far off and it was just sticking with things, and we’ve gotten much better about closing out close games.”

Though it ended up as the No. 6 seed in the playoffs, Minnesota was the fifth team to clinch a postseason berth and became the second squad in WNBA history to start a season 0-6 or worse and still make the playoffs. The other team was the 2015 Sparks, who fell in the Western Conference semifinals to, coincidentally, Minnesota. It also marks the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2004 without Fowles, Seimone Augustus or Maya Moore, all future Hall of Famers.

Collier is the key to the turnaround. The No. 6 overall pick in 2019, she has embraced her new role as franchise player and taken the step toward superstardom. Amid a career-best season, the former UConn star is a shoo-in for all-WNBA and might even earn votes on MVP ballots — all after having to get back into shape following her pregnancy. She has also added to her game, with Reeve noting Collier’s transition game and 3-point shooting have become strengths when they weren’t previously.

“There’s a lot of people that didn’t necessarily believe Napheesa Collier would become what she’s become this season, which is why I believe people didn’t think we’d be a playoff team,” Reeve said.

Collier is only 26, but she understands her indispensable role: She must put the team on her back at times, and if she’s having a poor shooting night she can’t simply defer to teammates; she has to find a way to make shots.

Reeve said Collier took the Lynx’s 30-point Game 1 loss hard after finishing with an underwhelming performance (14 points). She bounced back with a 26-point, 13-rebound outing to help them take Game 2.

“She’s a dream to coach,” Reeve said. “Napheesa Collier is just a really, really special basketball player, couple that with a person, and we have ourselves a gem in this franchise.”



Diamond Miller drives and drains a smooth basket

Diamond Miller drives past her defender and knocks down an impressive basket to pad the Lynx’s lead.

Collier hasn’t needed to do it entirely alone, as McBride’s 28-point Game 2 showed. The former Notre Dame standout has provided a massive veteran presence, and has been an increasingly reliable secondary scorer, putting up six 20-point games over the last 10 contests. After coming in as a free agent in 2021, McBride signed a two-year contract extension with Minnesota prior to the end of the regular season.

They haven’t had the flashiest playoff start so far, but Miller and fellow rookie Dorka Juhasz were critical to the Lynx’s regular-season success. Miller, the No. 2 overall pick and the franchise’s first lottery pick in over a decade, has shown flashes of her high ceiling, while Juhász, who went No. 16 overall, has provided a steadiness down low. Minnesota is the only team this season that has started multiple rookies for the majority of games.

The players have consistently referred to their strong chemistry, with Collier describing her teammates as “a special group of women” and Reeve acknowledging she “really wanted [to make the postseason] for this group.” And regardless of how Wednesday pans out, the future looks bright in Minneapolis with Collier, McBride and their rookies set to return, as well as Mitchell and Shepard.

But if there’s only 40 minutes separating the team from the semifinals, the Lynx figure, why not them?

“If we play like this again, we’re so hard to beat, and it’s fun to play that way,” Collier said after Game 2. “I can’t wait for the next game.”

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